Trigger Warnings Are Not “Censorship”

In unrelated news, I have a post up at the Daily Dot today about trigger warnings. Excerpt:

Students at various universities have been trying to take trigger warnings offline by requesting them in certain educational materials. Predictably, even professional and reasonable writers and journalists have responded to this by unleashing a hysteria about “censorship,” “dumbing down,” “suppression of discourse,” “hand-holding,” and other terrible things that will happen if we choose to warn students about potentially triggering material before they read it.

First, a clarification: nobody, to my knowledge, has asked that students be exempted from reading material that they find emotionally difficult. If a professor assigns reading and a student chooses not to do it, that student’s grades will probably suffer. Even if they don’t, though, universities function on the presumption that students are adults who must be allowed to make their own decisions about things like time management, amount of effort put into schoolwork, and so on. Trigger warnings on syllabi do not change any of this.

Much of the panic about trigger warnings in classrooms also focuses on the fear that privileged students will avoid material that makes them uncomfortable. So if you put “TW: misogyny, sexual violence” on a syllabus next to an assignment, male students might think, “Ugh, I don’t want to read about that” and avoid it.

But privileged students already avoid material that makes them uncomfortable; that may be one reason you see way too few white students in courses on African-American literature. Trigger warnings might make this slightly easier, but it doesn’t fix the larger, systemic problem of people choosing not to engage with material that challenges their worldview.

Further, avoiding trigger warnings for the sake of tricking privileged students into reading material on racism, sexism, and other unpleasant topics means potentially triggering underprivileged students by refusing to warn them that the upcoming reading assignment concerns traumatic things they may have experienced. People who lack privilege relative to others are constantly being asked to sacrifice their mental health and safety for the sake of educating those others, and this is just a continuation of that unjust pattern.

Read the rest here.

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It’s Okay Not To Disagree With Your Friends About Politics

I’ve seen a lot of articles and discussions lately on the theme of “why you should have friends who disagree with you [about politics].” Given how uncritically this view is often presented, I want to complicate it a little. My point isn’t that you shouldn’t have friends who disagree with you about politics, or that having friends who disagree with you about politics is bador that there no benefits to be had from having friends who disagree with you about politics, or that you should never expose yourself to views with which you disagree.

My point is just this:

  • Having politically divergent friends is not necessarily superior to not having politically divergent friends;
  • Having politically divergent friends does not necessarily make you superior to those who do not have politically divergent friends;
  • There are legitimate reasons why someone might choose not to have politically divergent friends;
  • There are other ways to reap the benefits of having politically divergent friends.

The reason I’m trying to make these points so carefully is because anytime I attempt to discuss this without several metric fucktons of nuance, folks immediately take my points to their most extreme possible conclusion and start being all like “OH SO YOU THINK THERE’S NO REASON TO EVEN ENGAGE WITH VIEWS WITH WHICH YOU DISAGREE AND IT’S BETTER TO JUST STAY IN YOUR OWN LITTLE BUBBLE HUH blah blah groupthink blah circle jerk blah blah echo chamber.”

*sigh* No.

When a position gets strawmanned so vigorously every time it’s brought up, I know it’s time to give it a proper defense.

In the interest of being fair, I understand where this is coming from. It is true that people tend to avoid evidence that goes against their beliefs and seek out evidence that confirms their beliefs. It is true that people sometimes stereotype and pigeonhole those that disagree with them rather than actually listening to them to see how they justify their own views. It is true that some people think you’d have to be “crazy” or “evil” or “stupid” (meaningless words, by the way, all of them) to hold some belief they disagree with. It is true that it is “easier” not to engage with views you disagree with than to engage with them.

I just don’t think that ameliorating this requires being “friends” with people you strongly disagree with (in my case, conservatives, libertarians, and so on).

First of all, perhaps we are disagreeing on the definition of “friend.” To me, a friend is a person with whom I share parts of myself that I would not share with a coworker, a classmate, a person I just met at a party, a stranger on the subway, a professor, or even a family member. My relationships with my friends aren’t purely dispassionate exchanges of ideas; they involve emotional intimacy and disclosure.

Someone with whom I’m friends on Facebook may also be my friend, but they may only be a “Facebook friend” if they are not someone with whom I’m interested or comfortable sharing very personal things. (I get pretty personal on my Facebook, but my definition of “personal” differs from most people’s.)

There is no need to be “friends” with someone (by my definition) to discuss politics with them and learn from their differing perspective. I can get that from a class discussion or from reading a blog post or newspaper editorial or from having them in my family or from getting into a conversation at a party or any number of ways that do not involve me making myself emotionally vulnerable to people who are probably going to hurt me. I engage with diverging views all the time. I just don’t need to do it while hanging out with friends or checking my Facebook.

Second, people have different goals for their friendships. If one of the main things you get out of friendship is exposure to ideas you disagree with, then it’s easy to strawman people who don’t want to do that as “not wanting to be exposed to ideas they disagree with.” If one of the main things you get out of friendship is emotional support (like me), then it’s easy to feel like we’re being demanded to open ourselves up to rejection and ridicule from conservative “friends” who think we’re going to hell or deserved to get sexually assaulted or should not have full human rights.

Furthermore, to those of us who don’t view friendship primarily as a way to be exposed to ideas we disagree with, it can feel very odd to be told that we “ought” to make friends with people we disagree with in order to “learn from them.” My friend Wes says, “I feel like articles like this view people as plot devices or vehicles for self-reflection. I have friends because I enjoy interacting with them, not because I think that interacting with them is good for me.” While some would argue that friendship is a transaction in any case, I personally feel gross conceptualizing it that way, and even if I didn’t, you still have to agree on what exactly is being transacted. If someone thinks they’re providing me with emotional support and hoping to get the same in return, it would probably be a little hurtful to realize I’m actually treating them as an anthropological experiment so that I can learn How Conservatives Live.

Just as people can have different goals for friendship, they can have different goals for social media. Progressives in particular often get criticized for “shutting down” disagreement on our Facebooks, because we’ve decided that we don’t care to see certain things on our pages. This, again, is taken as evidence that we don’t want to “engage” with dissenting viewpoints.

But I do want to engage with dissenting viewpoints. I’ve simply decided that my Facebook will not be the place where I do that. My Facebook will be a safe space where I go to get support, bounce ideas around with people who can help me develop them, share updates about my day-to-day life, and keep up to date with what my friends are doing. It is not Miri’s Free-For-All Political Argument Arena. That I do not want a barrage of notifications from people yelling at me every time I open Facebook (and nor do I want the panic that inevitably ensues) should not be taken as an indicator of my supposed unwillingness to “consider alternate views.”

Third, not all disagreement is made equal. For instance, I am not interested in engaging with people who ignore empirical reality, whether they do that in the form of denying climate change, insisting that racism is over, or claiming that you can “snap out of” mental illness. There is nothing to be gained from listening to someone call the sky green and the grass blue over and over.

I am also not interested in engaging with people whose sole justifications for their views are religion. You believe abortion is a sin against god. I believe there is no god and no sin. Neither of us is going to convince the other, and I’ve heard this argument a hundred times and will not gain anything from hearing it again.

The above views are things I can just as easily read about online or in books or newspapers. There is no need to waste my own or another person’s time hashing them out in real time.

Other disagreements are productive and interesting to hash out with people. I have argued about human rights organizations, how do donate to charity, affirmative action, whether or not Dan Savage sucks, whether or not polyamory can work, the Israel-Palestine situation, Occupy Wall Street, unpaid internships, why there aren’t more women and minorities in the tech sector, and plenty of other things, either in person or online. Some of the people in some of these debates were conservatives and libertarians, others were liberals or progressive. In any case, diverging views were exchanged and considered.

Fourth, even disagreements about the same issues can read very differently to the same people. For instance, I’m sure progressive dudes can have nice, dispassionate discussions about abortion rights with conservative dudes, because hey, no skin off their backs (and then they can turn around and demand that women do the same, you know, to avoid “groupthink”). Likewise, there’s probably a reason I included affirmative action in that list of things I can debate productively. It doesn’t affect me personally. When someone says they oppose affirmative action, that does not feel like an attack on me personally.

(It’s important to note, here, that just because you don’t mean for your Unbiased Objective Opinion to feel like an attack to someone else doesn’t mean that it doesn’t. Recognizing the disparity between intentions and outcomes is integral to debating sensitively and successfully)

Most people will not be interested in entertaining debates that feel like attacks on who they are, especially on aspects of their identity that they cannot (and, generally, don’t want to) change.

However, I suspect that the challenge isn’t convincing people that it’s okay not to do things that make you feel bad, but convincing them that some things that do not make them feel bad make others feel bad. If any of the people preaching the virtues of having politically divergent friends ever experienced the way I feel when yet another dude sneers at me about false rape accusations or asks me how I can tolerate living in “that neighborhood” with all of “those people,” they would probably stop preaching it.

But some people never experience that feeling either because they don’t experience much marginalization or because their brains just work differently (I have many extremely patient female, LGBTQ, PoC, and/or disabled friends who don’t mind engaging with those who are prejudiced against them). It is sometimes difficult for them to understand that others do experience that feeling (or even what that feeling is) and that that doesn’t make others “worse” than them somehow.

For what it’s worth, I’d be absolutely willing and interested in having conservative friends who want to just hang out and play games and explore New York together and leave my politics alone. I’ve had friends like that at college. But it rarely works because most conservatives who encounter my politics want to debate them, and I’m not interested in doing that with people I consider friends. My close relationships with people whose politics were very different from mine have relied on embracing our similarities and appreciating what we admire in each other, not on endlessly hashing out the same tired political arguments.

It’s easy to make statements like “everyone ought to have friends on the other side of the aisle” when you don’t consider that others might view friendships and political disagreements differently than you do. I want my friendships to be a refuge from the loneliness and cruelty of the rest of the world. That doesn’t make me “weaker” or “less open-minded” than you; it just means that I have different priorities. My priorities are shaped not only by the personality I was born with, but by the experiences I’ve had and the goals I’ve set for myself in my life.

If you enjoy political debates with friends, cool. If you don’t, cool. I want people to be open-minded and consider views they disagree with, but not at the cost of feeling accepted and supported by their friends. I want to challenge the idea that a person’s worth, intellectual capability, open-mindedness, or commitment to skeptical thinking can and should be judged by their willingness to have Dispassionate Debates with their friends about issues near and dear to their hearts.

When Neutrality Is Really Just The Status Quo

[Content note: sexual assault]

Someone who declares neutrality on a particular question, issue, or debate seems to automatically gain an intellectual (and, sometimes, moral) upper hand.

While there are often social consequences for picking one side or another, declaring neutrality has a very low barrier to entry. Outside of radical circles, nobody will criticize you for not taking sides. In fact, they may admire you because, after all, “the truth lies between two extremes.”

I saw this happen recently after Dylan Farrow published her piece in the New York Times about being abused by Woody Allen as a little girl. Almost immediately there was a collective chorus of dudes being like “Well we don’t really know what happened here I mean innocent until proven guilty right I mean that’s awful if he really did do that but I’m just not gonna take sides on this one and I mean like his films are just so brilliant.”

And this was, of course, presented as the righteous and proper response.

(Ashley Miller wrote an excellent post about why taking a neutral stance on the Woody Allen allegations doesn’t make sense, and Lisa Bloom, who has represented victims of child sexual abuse in court, offers a defense of Dylan Farrow’s credibility here. So, that’s not what I’ll be addressing in this post. Please don’t argue about it in the comments either.)

Another example that may at first seem unrelated: Jessica Valenti found out that TEDWOMEN, a series of TED Talks featuring women and promoting women’s issues, specifically avoided covering abortion in any of its talks. She writes:

When I asked around, the consensus was that the omission was simply an oversight. But it turns out TED is deliberately keeping abortion off the agenda. When asked for comment, TED content director and TEDWomen co-host Kelly Stoetzel said that abortion did not fit into their focus on “wider issues of justice, inequality and human rights.” “Abortion is more of a topical issue we wouldn’t take a position on, any more than we’d take a position on a state tax bill,” Stoetzel explained. She pointed me to a few talks on women’s health and birth control, but this made the refusal to discuss abortion only more glaring. In the last three years, the United States has seen more abortion restrictions enacted than in the entire previous decade; the United Nations has classified the lack of access to abortion as torture; and Savita Halappanavar died in Ireland because a Catholic hospital refused to end her doomed pregnancy. Just how is abortion not an issue of “justice, inequality and human rights”?

The comparison of abortion access to state tax issues is glaring, as is the presumption that refusing to “take a position” on this issue is in any way superior to taking a position on it. As this piece at ThinkProgress points out, there are plenty of reasons TEDWOMEN might make this choice besides a desire to appear neutral on the topic; however, I see this as part of a larger trend in which “hot-button” issues are seen as somehow beneath an esteemed organization or individual, and taking a position on such issues is seen as being petty or pedestrian.

And so TEDWOMEN carefully avoids taking a stance on a major women’s rights issue, and prefers instead to discuss how rich white women may better distinguish themselves in the corporate world, or whatever.

(Apparently the conference itself claims that Valenti took their words “out of context” and that they “welcome” talks on abortion. However, Valenti provided the full text of the email she received, and the fact remains that TEDWOMEN has never hosted a talk on abortion, which is one of the most well-known issues affecting women in the United States right now. If this controversy makes them host a talk on abortion, though, that’ll be great.)

In many cases, neutrality is extremely sensible. That is obvious. I would never deny that.

For example, if a well-designed, peer-reviewed study supports a conclusion you agree with but another well-designed, peer-reviewed study fails to replicate those results or suggests the opposite conclusion, you should probably try to remain neutral until more data is available rather than cherry-picking the results you agree with. If a couple you’re friends with breaks up and Alex blames Sam for cheating and Sam blames Alex for never wanting to have sex anymore, it’s fair to say that you’re not sure whose fault it was and to remain neutral by not taking sides.

But if 98% of the published research supports the conclusion you agree with and only 2% does not, it’s no longer very reasonable to declare neutrality as though both sides have the same amount of evidence backing them. And if Alex and Sam break up because Alex claims that Sam raped them and Sam says that Alex was “totally into it,” remaining neutral makes little sense. Alex doesn’t have much of a motive for lying, and, statistically, false rape accusations that name an attacker are very rare. Saying, “Well, I don’t know what really happened, I’ll remain neutral” means saying, “Well, I don’t know, Alex might be lying about getting raped.”

There is nothing courageous, original, or unpopular about being neutral. While that doesn’t mean being neutral is wrong, obviously, it does mean that you should be wary of people who paint themselves and their neutrality as morally heroic. It’s a cheap tactic, a way to puff up your credibility without having to actually demonstrate any knowledge or understanding of the situation. In that way, it has a lot in common with the related tactic of declaring oneself the True Skeptic/Rationalist, unlike one’s opponent, who is clearly incapable of rational thought, bless their heart.

Neutrality becomes a problem when it becomes an excuse for doing nothing–as it often does. We are neutral on the subject of climate change; therefore, we will not commit to researching ways to slow, stop, or cope with it. We are neutral on the subject of abortion; therefore, we will not invite speakers who advocate for reproductive rights. We are neutral on the subject of whether or not our friend raped you as you say they did; therefore, we will not stop inviting our friend to parties, because that would be rude. In fact, we’ll stop inviting you, because your outlandish claims are making us uncomfortable.

When someone claims neutrality, assess the situation. Whose interests are being served by refusing to take a stance? Is the evidence disproportionately on one side of the debate rather than another? What’s the worst that would happen if you took a side? What’s the worst that would happen if you did not take any sides?

(“Innocent until proven guilty!” is a lovely battle cry until you’re far from a court room and the question is whether or not to believe a woman who says very convincingly that your hero sexually abused her.)

Sometimes neutrality is a reasonable response to a situation with lots of conflicting bits of evidence, none of which is significantly more compelling than any other.

Other times, neutrality is a lazy excuse to avoid engaging with a difficult subject and to do nothing.

~~~

P.S. My favorite commentary on the Woody Allen situation is a comment from this post by Amanda Marcotte:

Occam’s Razor:

Thesis 1: A mother who otherwise loves and cares for her children chooses to deliberately implant a memory of painful molestation to get back at her partner, and was so good at memory implantation, better even than Korean War interrogators, that the memory persisted into adulthood and was powerful enough that the daughter felt the need to be dragged through the mud and called a liar just for expressing it.

Thesis 2: A guy who has admitted to having sex with another minor, and who makes movies about how fun it is to fuck minors, actually abused a minor.

Wow. Such leap of logic. Much unlikely. So irrationality.

Unpaid Internships Are Exploitative

It’s that time of year when many people my age are starting to desperately look for summer internships so that they can eventually be qualified for an entry-level job and aren’t screwed and broke forever.

Too real? Maybe a little.

In many fields–journalism, politics, film, social services, and even many areas of academic research–paid summer internships are the exception, not the rule. Being paid to work full-time is the exception.

It is very difficult, almost impossible sometimes, to explain this situation to people in different fields, people who had paid summer internships starting with their freshman year of college, who got recruited and hired in the middle of their senior year, who started with a comfortably middle-class salary and good benefits in their first full-time job. “Just find a paid internship, then!” they advise me, unhelpfully.

Those of you who have never had to navigate this hell will just have to believe those of us who have.

People who otherwise support living wages (or, at least, wages) bend over backwards to justify unpaid internships. One frequent justification is that they provide valuable experience that looks very good on one’s resume. While that’s true, so do most (paid) jobs. Jobs look excellent on a resume and you often learn a lot from doing them. That doesn’t mean it’s reasonable to ask you to do them for no pay.

Unpaid internships are exploitative. I won’t go as far as some do and call them slavery or indentured servitude, but they’re exploitative all the same. Sure, nobody’s “forcing” people to intern without pay, but if you can’t get a job in the field without it, you’re as good as forced.

“Just choose another field” isn’t an answer. An excellent writer who can’t get a job in journalism because they can’t afford to work for free doesn’t necessarily have the skills to get a job in computer science. And why should only rich people be able to work in journalism, politics, activism, entertainment, or social services? (Don’t even get me started on the dangers of having only rich people working in journalism and social services.)

Sometimes people defend unpaid internships by saying that they did one and found it very fun and educational. That’s nice. I don’t mean that sarcastically; it really is. But that doesn’t make it non-exploitative. Enjoying something–finding it useful, even–does not mean that thing is not part of a system that devalues young people’s work and shuts the gates to certain professions to all but those with lots of resources.

I’ve also had people tell me that unpaid internships are great because that’s how they got jobs afterwards. Right, that’s the problem.

Unpaid internships, at least when run legally, can easily be rationalized as “fair.” The idea is that your supervisors expend a lot of time on educating you and don’t really benefit from your being there, at least not nearly as much as you benefit from being there. What does that sound a lot like? Yup, college, which most people who have to do unpaid internships have already done or are doing (and paying a lot for). Except that college students are often eligible for federal financial aid or scholarships from their schools. Very few sources of aid are available to unpaid interns. (College, by the way, is still vastly unaffordable and exclusionary.)

Sometimes unpaid internships offer academic credit in lieu of payment. However, it seems pretty rare that this credit can replace coursework and facilitate early graduation, and as I just noted, the financial support available during the academic year is often unavailable during the summer.

Regardless, in many cases unpaid internships are illegal–anytime there isn’t a substantial educational component. (Anecdotally, that seems to be most of the time.) I’ve heard people be like “Yeah well internships like that are illegal,” as though that matters. (It’s similar to how people try to use “Yeah well rape’s illegal” as an argument against rape culture.) What intern is going to completely destroy their career prospects and spend a fortune they don’t have on suing their employer? Nobody*. Employers know this.

Unpaid internships don’t just suck because it sucks to work without pay. They also suck because they keep important professions full of the sorts of people who can afford to not have to support themselves until their mid- to late-20s. That also means that they’re a self-perpetuating problem, because until more politicians, journalists, activists, social scientists, and social service workers take on this issue, it’s not going to get better, and the people who succeed in these fields tend to be people who didn’t have all that much difficulty working for free.

(We spend a lot of time in my social work program talking about how it’s still not diverse enough, especially not socioeconomically. Of course it’s fucking not. The cost of attending Columbia’s MSW program is $70,000 a year, plus all the unpaid internships it took to get accepted in the first place.)

I don’t know how to fix this problem. Right now, all the parties involved are acting pretty rationally. Of course organizations, especially non-profits, will opt out of paying their interns, cash-strapped as they often are. Of course interns will accept unpaid internships, knowing that’s their only shot at a job someday, although it’s often still not enough. Of course graduate programs and employers will choose applicants who have relevant work experience, even if it was unpaid, over those who spent their summers working as baristas and lifeguards and babysitters. Of course, of course, of course.

I do know that fixing a problem begins with recognizing that it exists. Recognize that unpaid internships are exploitative.

~~~

* Not actually strictly true anymore. Some interns have been filing lawsuits. Unfortunately, this seems to lead employers to stop offering internships altogether rather than to start offering paid ones.

Also, read Sarah Kendzior’s fantastic take on unpaid internships.

Also also, I’m going to give a shout-out to two organizations that offer paid summer internships despite being nonprofits: the Secular Student Alliance and the Center for Inquiry. If you know of other secular/progressive organizations that do the same, leave them in the comments.

I Check My Phone While Out With People and If You Don’t Like That Please Don’t Hang Out With Me

I recently made a Facebook status/Tumblr post that read as follows:

Since APPARENTLY this has become a huge contentious debate all over Facebook, let me make my position on it clear:

1. If we’re hanging out in person and you want to check your phone, go for it. If you need to take care of something on your phone, go for it. If you want to text someone, go for it. If you get a call and want to take it, go for it. Hell, feel free to take out a book and read it if that’s what you feel like doing. I can survive the temporary loss of your full attention and you don’t need to justify it to me every time you decide that there’s something more important in the world than me. :)

2. If we’re hanging out in person and you snark at me about using my phone, make me feel bad for occasionally needing a moment to withdraw, get annoyed that things come up in my life that I need to take care of immediately (either because they’re time-sensitive or because I know I’ll worry and be unable to enjoy my time with you anyway if I don’t take care of it), or otherwise act like you’re entitled to my complete and undivided attention at all times just because I agreed to make plans with you, you’re making it less and less likely that I’ll hang out with you again.

3. I know some people are fond of assuming that others need their assistance “disconnecting” from technology or setting their priorities straight, but that’s between me and my hypothetical therapist and is none of your business. And if it’s that offensive to you that I check my phone sometimes while out with people, then you take care of your OWN needs by choosing not to hang out with me rather than expecting ME to take care of your needs by changing my interaction style.

The point of this post wasn’t so much to convince anyone of anything as to let my friends know where I stand and to let them know that they are free to do these types of things (“tech-diddling,” as one called it) around me. It was also to warn people who find this unforgivably rude that I’m not the best person for them to make social plans with. That’s all.

Unsurprisingly, this got a lot of pushback, the nature of which was also unsurprising. So I’m going to expand on it a little.

First of all, a lot of people responded with something along the lines of, “Have you perhaps considered that some people find this rude?” Yes, I have perhaps considered that, or else I wouldn’t have written the post. The fact that some people find it rude is not an argument against my own choice to not find it rude, and my own choice to try to associate with people who feel similarly.

Responding to this post with “Have you perhaps considered that some people find this rude?” is equivalent to responding to a post called “Why I Think Justin Beiber’s Music Is Actually Great” with “Have you perhaps considered that some people don’t like Justin Beiber’s music?” If I found something so self-evident that I was literally unaware that a dissenting opinion even exists, there would be no need to state my own opinion publicly and justify it. Furthermore, the fact that it’s rude is the majority opinion, so it’s more than a little condescending when people assume I’m so clueless I don’t even know what the majority of people think about a topic that often comes up in conversation.

Second, I found that a lot of people were very quick with anecdotes about that one person who spent the entire dinner or party or coffee date on their phone without paying any attention to you. I can agree that this person is behaving rudely, though I’d be more curious what’s going on for them that’s making them do it than I would be interested in issuing a blanket condemnation of their behavior. But in any case, the vast majority of social-time technology use is nothing of that caliber. The posts and articles that prompted me to make that post to begin with were about trends like having party guests put their phones in a basket at the door so that they have no access to them the entire time, or having the first person to so much as glance at their phone have to pay for everyone’s dinner. What the hell? There’s a difference between glancing at one’s notifications or shooting off a quick text and spending the whole time “glued” to one’s phone like a teenager in a stupid cartoon about teenagers.

There’s also a difference between suddenly taking out your phone and engaging with it while your conversational partner is mid-sentence, versus waiting for them to finish and saying, “Excuse me, I need to check this right now,” and doing so. There’s yet another difference between frequently spending lots of time on your phone during social gatherings, versus telling your friends, “Just so you know, I’ll be checking a lot on my friend who’s going through a hard time,” or “Just so you know, I might be on my phone a lot because it helps me relax when I get stressed in social situations.” Kinda like I’m doing here. Communication! I love it.

Third, a bunch of people started distinguishing between acceptable reasons to check one’s phone and unacceptable reasons to check one’s phone. Family emergencies, work obligations: acceptable. Checking Facebook, sending a tweet: not acceptable. Here are some of my own reasons for checking my phone during social things:

  • I’m an introvert and get overwhelmed if I don’t have regular moments to withdraw into my own world.
  • If I’m bored, my mind quickly drifts to really unpleasant thoughts and my mood plummets, and checking my phone helps me avoid being bored.
  • Perhaps you said something really hurtful and offensive but I don’t want to derail the entire social gathering, so I retreat and calm down by distracting myself with my phone.
  • If something’s going on in my life that’s coming up on my phone and it’s very stressful, dealing with it immediately will help me be more present for you afterwards as opposed to worrying the entire time and ignoring everything that’s going on.
  • I don’t want to be overwhelmed by tons of notifications and emails when I get home hours from now.

I am in a better position than you to decide when I need to check my phone and when I do not.

Fourth, some people thought that “I’m going to check my phone while with people” means “I will sit there texting and Facebooking while you try to tell me about your breakup or your depression.” Again, things like this are very contextual. There have been plenty of times when someone said, “I really need to talk to you about something” and set up a time with me and sat on my bed or my couch and told me about it. You can bet that phone shit was on the other side of the room during that whole conversation. But when we’re getting lunch or hanging out in a big casual group of people, it’s a different situation. Anyone is welcome to ask me for what they want, including for me to not check my phone while they tell me about something, and I will almost always say yes.

Fifth, some people thought that checking your phone while out with people is inherently, automatically a sign that you don’t value them or find them boring or don’t want to show them that you care. As my friends and partners would hopefully attest, I show my love, care, and attention in many, many ways. I don’t think I need to list those ways here or justify myself to people, but if someone in my life wants to know how I feel about them or wants me to show them love, care, and attention in ways I haven’t been, they are always welcome to tell me that. I would also hope that they will believe me when I say, “Me checking my phone will I’m out with you doesn’t mean I don’t value our time together; it means ________.” That’s what I’m doing here. I’m saying that when I check my phone, it’s because I have my own needs that I need to take care of. It’s not you, it’s me.

Here’s what it really comes down to: people’s feelings of being neglected or ignored or treated rudely when a friend checks their phone are real and valid. I’m absolutely not here to say that those feelings are wrong. I am here to say two things: 1) it might be worth considering other possible ways to interpret someone’s phone-checking, and 2) even if you still think it’s rude and wrong, maybe you should hang out with people who feel the way you do, and I should hang out with people who feel the way I do.

Cuz the thing is, there are a lot of things I find rude that other people don’t seem to, such as being given unsolicited advice, having people try to psychoanalyze me, and being touched without my permission. I am welcome to make the case that these things are rude (as I often have), and others are welcome to tell me that they will continue doing so anyway, and then I am welcome to stop spending time with these people, and they are not welcome to try to guilt me into spending time with them anyway.

The wonderful thing about having so many great friends who understand the way I communicate is that I get to carve out a social space that operates by the rules we prefer. Some rules that other people have, we do not: for instance, the rule that checking your phone in front of people is wrong and that talking about one’s mental health problems is generally inappropriate and that sex is something to be kept private. Other rules we have are ones that other people don’t: for instance, that you should ask before giving someone a hug or otherwise touching them, and that you should communicate as clearly as possible rather than playing mind games or expecting people to guess your feelings.

Some people don’t want to play by these rules and they don’t like the fact that we don’t play by their rules. That’s okay.

What’s not okay is this presumption I encounter so frequently that checking your phone in front of people is inherently rude, rather than rude because some people (not all people) have coded it that way. And given that 89 people liked the original Facebook post (way more than most of my posts get), I’m clearly not some solitary weirdo on this issue. I say this not to brag about my Facebook following, but to emphasize the fact that many people agree with this view and want to socialize in this way.

Ultimately I’m not comfortable with blanket condemnations of behaviors that are not intrinsically hurtful to people. There are times when I think it would be wrong for me to check my phone, so I don’t. There are times when I think it’s okay for me to check my phone, so I do. The set of times when I think it’s okay is much greater than the set of times that many other people think it’s okay, and I disagree that that makes me automatically wrong. Maybe we just have different preferences and expectations for social interactions, and if those don’t correspond very well, we’re better off not hanging out together.

I would also like to increase the acceptability of the fact that most of us are not always fascinating and scintillating conversationalists. I’m sometimes bored around people I generally like a lot. People who generally like me a lot are probably sometimes bored by me. If I’m boring someone and they don’t want to tell me so or change the topic, I’d rather they do something to avoid being bored, because I don’t want my friends to feel bored. (And honestly, telling someone directly that they’re boring you is even less acceptable than checking your phone while you’re with them, so that’s not really an option most of the time.)

I think a lot of the furor around people who check their phones while socializing is stemming from the idea that if someone’s agreed to make plans with you, they owe you 100% of their attention at every moment of the time you spend together or else they’re not “respecting” you. That’s probably not even possible, and many people who do not check their phones simply let their minds wander anyway. But more to the point, I don’t think that agreeing to spend time with someone should imply that if your attention strays from them at any point, you’re not fulfilling your end of the bargain. I don’t want my social interactions to be so transactional. I don’t want to do things out of obligation.

Besides, I have spent many, many happy hours with friends and partners working on our laptops in silence and speaking briefly every once in a while, and I value that time as much as I value the times when we’re talking animatedly and nearly interrupting each other because we just have so much to say.

I don’t think there has to be only one acceptable way for healthy, mutually respectful social interaction to look, and I’d like to spend my time with those who agree.

In Defense of Having Big/Serious/Difficult Conversations in Writing

This post grew out of a conversation I had with Chana Messinger and was also influenced by this great old Wired piece that has resurfaced on my social networks lately.

You may not think that, in this day and age, the value of digital communication still needs to be defended. Maybe it doesn’t. But the idea that “big” discussions about “serious” interpersonal matters must be reserved for in-person conversations (or, at the very least, for the telephone) is still pervasive. (Witness the constant hand-wringing in forums and magazines over whether or not it’s acceptable to break up with someone via text or email.)

I think it’s considered “common sense”–an unspoken assumption–that Important Interpersonal Conversations are best conducted in person. Wherever there is “common sense,” there are lots of fascinating insights to be gleaned about our societal values and norms. So I want to shake this idea up a bit.

Disclaimer first. The purpose of this article is twofold: 1) so that I have something to show friends and partners who want to understand why I prefer to communicate the way I do, and 2) to challenge some assumptions about text-based communication and give people something to think about. Note the conspicuous absence of “3) to convince you to stop communicating the way you like to and to do it my way instead.” Sometimes when writing about the pros or cons of something, it’s hard to avoid giving the impression that you Unilaterally Recommend the thing you’re giving pros for or that you Unilaterally Reject the thing you’re giving cons for. The only communication style I Unilaterally Recommend is the one that works for you, helps you get your needs met, and treats others with respect and dignity.

So, with all that said, let’s make a case for having difficult and/or serious conversations in writing.

My personal preference for it stems from a few things. First of all, I just really fucking love writing. It’s been my preferred method of communication and self-expression since I learned how to do it. For me it’s both a creative outlet and a practical tool. The way I analyze and process my own life is often by imagining how I would narrate it if I were writing about it.

Second, I grew up with the unfortunate combination of very curious and perceptive parents, high emotional expressiveness that’s very difficult to hide or subdue, and clinical depression. This means that my feelings were often bad (to the point of being socially and culturally unacceptable) and usually very obvious to everyone around me.

As a result, I place a very high value on what I call emotional privacy. Emotional privacy just means being able to keep your emotions private unless/until you want to reveal them. Although I haven’t studied this or talked about it with enough people to know, I would guess that emotional privacy is not something you think about a lot unless you have a mental illness, have difficulty controlling your emotional expression, or have very nosy friends, partners, or family members.

When I was depressed, and to a lesser extent now, it was impossible for me to communicate about difficult things like relationship breakups or disagreements without showing emotions, and the emotions I showed were often considered excessive and unacceptable and “wrong” by people. So I learned to value communicating in a way that allowed me to hide them until I chose to reveal them in a more appropriate way than bursting into tears–for instance, by saying, “I’m really upset that you’d end things this way,” or “It pisses me off that you’re being so critical.”

One of the most common reasons people give for why you should have these conversations in person is that this allows you to read the other person’s body language, facial expression, tone, and so forth. It’s true that these things can be very helpful in understanding someone. But it’s also true, at least to me, that people don’t always want you to be reading them in that way.

Think about it. If you ask someone if they’re upset and they say “No,” but their nonverbal cues suggest otherwise, that probably means that they’re indeed upset but don’t want to tell you that right now. (I think it’s totally fine to choose not to tell someone that you’re upset at them, with caveats.) Why should you have access to information about someone’s emotional state that they don’t want you to have? Why should your desire to know how they really feel trump their desire to choose whether and when to share their emotional state with you?

When I’m discussing something difficult with someone, I want emotional privacy. I want to be able to choose when and how to tell them what I’m feeling. Because I, like many people, do not have perfect control over my emotional expression, this makes text-based communication preferable.

But it’s not just about me. I want to extend this right to the person I’m communicating with, too. While I always care about and want to know how people are feeling, especially when we’re talking about something serious, I want them to tell me how they’re feeling when they’re ready to.

For me, this is especially key when it comes to breakups. The common wisdom is that it shows “respect” to someone to drag them out to a restaurant or some other public place or even your home, break up with them, force them to process those emotions right there in front of you, possibly cry in public, and then go home alone. I find this absolutely baffling. I think that the kindest thing you can do when breaking up with someone is to give them privacy and to let them choose whether or not to respond to your message or see you again or share their reaction to the breakup with you.

Another advantage of text-based communication is that it facilitates the act of thinking before speaking (or writing, as the case may be). Unfortunately, American culture still largely considers silence and pauses during conversation to be “awkward,” so people feel the pressure to fill them up. People may also speak impulsively. With text, email, and instant message, there are different norms about how quickly one needs to respond, and you also have the benefit of seeing your words take shape as you type them–before you send them off into the world. With face-to-face conversation, we typically don’t get to rehearse.

I want the freedom to write and revise and rewrite what I want to say before the other person sees it, because this helps me be the best communicator I can possibly be. I want the person I’m talking to to have this freedom too.

Text-based conversations can also be paused in ways that in-person conversations cannot. “I’m not thinking clearly right now and need to take a break. I’ll text you when I’m ready to talk again.” “Hold on, I need to step away and think about this for a while.” These are things that are certainly possible to do in person, but harder, especially because unless the two of you live together, you probably had to go somewhere to talk to each other.

Further, text-based conversations have the amazing feature of (usually) being saved in writing and accessible later. No more arguing about who said what or started what or brought up what. No more mentally kicking yourself because you spaced out and didn’t really hear what the person was saying but feel bad about asking now (although, if you’re in this situation, you should definitely still ask). No more awkwardly asking for a repeat if you’re hard of hearing or still learning the language or the other person has an accent. And if–hopefully you never have to deal with this–the person harasses, abuses, or threatens you, you have a record of that.

Finally, text-based conversation can be a lot easier for people who are dealing with shyness, introversion, or social anxiety (or other mental illnesses). Some people use this fact as an excuse to dismiss text-based communication as being for “cowardly” people who just want to “hide behind the computer screen” and blahblah, but I hope I don’t need to explain why I find this completely asinine. People have varying levels of comfort with things. In general, increasing your level of comfort with something as ubiquitous and necessary as in-person communication is great, but until you find a way to do that, you still need a way to communicate effectively.

Remember, though, that you need not have any clinical condition to find it easier and more comfortable to communicate in writing. The fact that you simply prefer it is legitimate in and of itself. You do not need an “excuse.”

There are, of course, challenges and pitfalls with text-based communication. They can be corrected for to varying degrees.

One such challenge is the occasional difficulty of understanding what exactly someone means by something they wrote. While there is (contrary to common belief) tone on the internet, it is of a very different nature than verbal tone. For instance:

  • “I can’t believe you did that.”
  • “I CAN’T BELIEVE YOU DID THAT”
  • “I can’t believe you did that. :(“
  • “i cant believe u did that”
  • “I can’t believe you did that :P”
  • “I can’t believe you did that! :D”

All of these things convey different things, and some have more meaning in them than others. When communicating in text, capitalization and emoticons can be extremely important, even if you’re used to thinking of those things as rude or childish somehow. A well-placed emoticon can change everything:

  • “How are you?” “Fine.”
  • “How are you?” “Fine :)”
  • “How are you? “Fine :-/”

(Some of my greatest difficulties in text-based communication have been with people who do not use emoticons.)

Beyond such relatively easy fixes, however, it’s important to master simple phrases like these:

  • “It sounds like you’re saying ______. Am I interpreting correctly?”
  • “I don’t understand what you mean by ______. Can you clarify?”
  • “What does it mean when you [use that emoticon/phrase/punctuation/etc.]?”

If any of this sounds really standard and normal, that’s probably because asking for clarification and checking in to make sure you understood is a very important communication skill that will come in handy for in-person conversation, too!

In fact, I’m going to posit that, while the challenges of understanding each other in text-based communication are slightly different than those in verbal communication, they’re not significantly greater, if at all. It’s obviously false that verbal communication never creates misunderstandings. In fact, because verbal communication tends to fly by much quicker and does not naturally include lulls that facilitate reflection (as text-based communication does), it’s probably less likely that the participants will even realize that a miscommunication has occurred. With text, you’ll be reading it, and you’ll find yourself thinking, “Wait, what does this actually mean?” And then you can ask!

Another disadvantage is that it’s impossible to physically comfort someone during a difficult conversation if you’re doing it in writing. Obviously. While there isn’t really a good way around this, online expressions like *hug* help. So does simply saying, “I wish I could hold you right now” or something like that. But obviously, it’s not the same.

In general, good text-based communication, just like good verbal communication, requires mastering a number of different speaking/writing/listening/empathizing skills. I think people sometimes assume that communication is not a “skill” because humans are “wired” to communicate. Yes and no. I’m not sure that humans are “wired” to communicate things as complex as we regularly try to do now, and even if we were, it’s still the case that different individuals learn different styles of speaking and writing, and it’s important to realize that what may read to you as _____ may read to someone else as totally not _____.

I have conducted the majority of my “serious” conversations via writing since I was 14. My emails, IM logs, Facebook messages, and texts chronicle flirtations and new relationships and breakups and makeups and first “I love you”‘s and negotiations and arguments and sexual boundary settings and everything else that is part of the process of forming, defining, maintaining, and (sometimes) ending friendships and relationships of all kinds. I can honestly say that many of these friendships and relationships could not have happened in any other way. There is a certain magic to falling in love with someone through their words.

Maybe you’re of a different generation and this all seems kind of sad and pathetic to you. That’s okay. But to me, it’s part of what makes my life so rich and colorful. Maybe I’ll grow to prefer in-person communication as my social networks solidify and I stop moving around. But for now, writing will be the way I do it.

“How Do I Get My Partner To Try Polyamory?”

The title of this post is one of the most common questions I’ve seen people ask, online and off, about polyamory. “I really want to try an open relationship but my partner doesn’t. How do I get them to change their mind?” “I’ve started seeing a wonderful new person, but there’s a catch: they’re not poly. How do I convince them to try it?” And so on.

Here’s the short answer: you don’t.

Here’s the longer answer: This way lies potential for mutual growth and awesomeness. But this way also lies an arguably greater potential for hurt feelings, manipulation, coercion, and even abuse. Please be careful.

The first important thing is to understand why your partner does not want to try polyamory. People have all sorts of reasons for that:

  • they’re afraid of feeling jealous
  • it’s against their religious beliefs
  • they want a partner who’s always available to them
  • they don’t want to worry about the complications of safer sex with multiple partners
  • they don’t want to face stigma from friends, family, employers, or communities
  • they’re not interested in seeing anyone else
  • they want to get married and/or have children soon and don’t want to deal with polyamory in that regard
  • they just don’t understand what it is or how it works or why it might be worthwhile
  • and many more.

If you are polyamorous, many of these may not seem like very good reasons to you. Some of them don’t really to me either. But it’s not up to you to pass judgment on how good someone else’s reasons are, and if that someone else is your partner, being nonjudgmental is especially important.

Ask your partner what their qualms about polyamory are. Don’t frame the question like “Yeah well why not” or “But what’s wrong with polyamory” or “But don’t you want [to feel more free/to let me be more free/to explore other options/etc].” Go into the discussion with the intent to understand your partner, not necessarily to be understood by your partner or to push a specific point of view. Ask, “How do you feel when you think about being polyamorous?” or “How do you imagine an ideal relationship?” This will probably not be a one-time conversation, though. Follow the discussion and see how it unfolds.

Eventually, you may–if your partner trusts you and if you’re empathic and patient–understand why your partner doesn’t want to try polyamory. If the reason is that it goes against their core beliefs or it’s just not how they envision what a relationship ought to be, you’re probably out of luck. Sometimes people have beliefs that you strongly disagree with; that’s a good indicator that they may not be the best partners for you.

Sometimes, though, people don’t want to try polyamory because they don’t really understand how it works. For instance, I once thought that polyamory meant that none of my partners would “truly” love me. None of them would ever want to, say, live with me or get married or sit at the hospital for hours while I recovered from surgery. I thought that polyamory just meant having a loose collection of friends with benefits who pass in and out of your life seemingly at random. While for some people that might be great, for me it sounded horrible.

But then I read some books about it out of curiosity and I discovered that there are people who would want to do all of those Serious Relationship Things with me while still being okay with me seeing other people! Those things are not mutually exclusive. And although I now value Serious Relationship Things much less than I used to, and would be comfortable being single and not having those things with anyone, it’s nice to know that they are not incompatible with polyamory.

If your partner is like I was back then, you can certainly help them understand what you’re looking for by sharing with them good books and articles about polyamory, introducing them to poly friends who can talk about how their own relationships work, and just talking about how you envision the future if you stay together and become poly.

But the key is that you cannot be too forceful or pressuring. If you do that, you will fail, but more importantly, you will probably seriously hurt your partner.

Often, though, it’s not so simple. Many people say that they don’t want to try polyamory because they would feel too jealous. Remember that jealousy, like any other human emotion, is neither good nor bad; it just is. Some people choose to hack their own emotions and try to replace them with more optimal ones (compersion, in the case of polyamory), but other people have no interest in doing this. That’s their right. Feel free to share with your partner your own perspectives on jealousy, but remember that it’s unfair to presume that your partner “ought” to try to get over their jealousy. That’s for them to decide.

You may be entirely correct if you think that your partner would be better off learning to manage their jealousy and becoming polyamorous. But sometimes, when it comes to relationships, being kind is more important than being right. I’ll share a personal story to illustrate what I mean.

The main reason I was initially extremely opposed to polyamory (personally, not universally) was because I had depression. I didn’t realize this at the time; I thought that I was just a person who has Extreme Feelings of Jealousy and that’s Just How I Am and nothing can be done about it, because I hadn’t ever been able to do anything about it for as long as I could remember having those feelings. The mere thought of polyamory made my guts churn.

But when I recovered from depression, I realized that those Extreme Feelings of Jealousy had all been tied into my depression, which was fueling my insecurity and fear. I started identifying as poly within a month of recovering and started seeing my first poly partner two months later. Although I still have manageable, healthy feelings of jealousy sometimes, that gaping chasm of fuckfuckthisisterribleIcan’tdoit had closed and becoming polyamorous was actually a very easy decision.

How would I have felt if, prior to my recovery, a partner had patronizingly informed me that the reason I didn’t want to try polyamory was because I was depressed? Pretty angry and hurt. I would have felt manipulated if I sensed that my partner’s main concern about my depression was not that it was making me depressed, but that it was preventing me from agreeing to polyamory and letting my partner get their rocks off with other people. I would have felt that my serious illness was being trivialized. I would have felt that my partner was treating me like a child by making assumptions about how depression affects the rest of my life. Because even if a partner of mine had understood what was going on–itself an unlikely feat–it’s not their place to tell me how my mental health is affecting my relationship choices and that I should improve my mental health so as to make “better” relationship choices. That was my battle to fight, and I fought and won it.

Sometimes being kind is more important than being right. And, I would add, presuming to know what’s best “for your own good” is not being kind in my book. It’s being manipulative and condescending.

So, try not to speculate about why your partner is feeling the way they are about polyamory. Let them discover that on their own. Hopefully, if they value your relationship, they will at least make an effort to do some soul-searching and help you understand them, just as you, if you value your relationship, will make an effort to understand their objections rather than trying to “convert” them to your preferred relationship style.

I want to emphasize how fine a line you have to walk. It’s quite possible that you’ll convince your partner to try polyamory and they’ll be really glad they did. It’s also possible that you’ll convince your partner to try polyamory, and later–in months, or years–they’ll gradually understand that they only tried it because they started to believe that they had to do it in order to keep you. They may feel manipulated even though you never intentionally manipulated them. They may feel worthless because they were unable to do what you wanted them to. This may not be your fault whatsoever, or it may be a little bit your fault, or it may be almost entirely your fault. Neither of you may ever know for sure.

This is why my knee-jerk answer at the beginning of this post was, “You don’t.”

I completely understand how awful it feels when you really like/love someone, but you’re poly and they’re not and you don’t know what to do. Some poly people deal with this situation by trying monogamy, temporarily or permanently, to varying levels of success. Some try to convince their partner to give polyamory a try, as I’ve laid out above. Others end the relationship.

The later is, in my opinion, the safest and healthiest option. It assumes responsibility for your own needs rather than expecting your partner to conform to them, and it acknowledges the fact that trying to “get” your partner to try another type of relationship is a situation that’s pretty likely to lead to lots of frustration and resentment for both of you.

I would love it if people would reframe the question in this post’s title as, “How do I help my partner understand polyamory?” This suggests that your goal is to help them come to their own conclusion about whether or not this is something they’d like to try, and that your role in the process is to provide them with resources and support, not prefabricated opinions.

Whichever path you choose, be prepared to spend a lot of time examining your own biases and motivations and making sure that you’re not being coercive or manipulative. Remind your partner that you only want them to try polyamory if they decide they want to, not in order to please you or keep you from leaving. Try to refrain from making assumptions about their reasoning; while people are often wrong about themselves, they still have access to much more information about themselves than you do.

Remember that sometimes, being kind is more important than being right.

I Am Not Trayvon Martin

When Trayvon Martin was murdered last year, I remember seeing many people post things like “I am Trayvon Martin” online, sometimes accompanied by photos of themselves in hoodies. At first I thought it was something people of color were doing as a sign of solidarity and as a reminder that they, too, face the same prejudice and danger that Trayvon did, but then I noticed lots of white folks doing it. This sort of bothered me.

Now that the awful verdict has appeared, I’ve been seeing it again, but I’ve also been seeing plenty of thoughtful responses to it. For instance, this Tumblr, simply titled “We Are Not Trayvon Martin.”

The Tumblr is full of posts from people who submit their photos along with a note about why they are not Trayvon–that is, how they benefit from privilege. Here’s one:

I am a young white woman.  Last night, I attended a JusticeforTrayvon rally in East LA.  As I walked up the block toward the main square, I passed a line of (all white) cops.

“Are you going to the rally?” one asked.

“Yes,”  I replied.

“Behave yourself,” he said with a wink.

I gave a short laugh.  “I will”  (I really wanted to say, “You, too.”)

He gave me a big, friendly smile and pointed me toward the square.

I am not Trayvon Martin.

Another one:

I am not Trayvon Martin. I am a white, 30-year-old woman living with my husband and young son in the Midwest. We live two doors down from a black family that includes teenage sons. I have never met them, never introduced myself, never made an effort to show that I am happy we are neighbors, that they are safe in their neighborhood and respected by their neighbors. I do not fear them as black men; it’s more that I’m a shy person, afraid of the awkwardness of reaching out to anyone. But fear of any kind prevents community, breeds suspicion, and can lead to isolation and violence.

Will my white son wonder, one day, why we don’t know these neighbors? I repent of my fear; I promise to start being a true neighbor.

And another:

I am not Trayvon Martin. I am an African American stay at home wife and mother of three sweet girls. I was born in Atlanta, Georgia, and though I am not Trayvon Martin. I know many Trayvons. As a former educator I witnessed a system that allowed some of our most brilliant children to fall through the proverbial cracks. As a college educated, lighter hued, African American woman who has always lived a comfortable middle class existence, I know my privilege. Though I have been racialized, and I know what it is like to be a woman in a society that attenuates women consistently, I will NEVER know what it is like to be a black man in Amerikkka. I do not know what it is to be viewed as a menace to society. I am not Trayvon Martin.

It’s not as palatable a message as the stream of “I am Trayvon Martin” posts and hoodie photos. But it rings much more true.

I understand the importance and the appeal of solidarity, so I can sympathize with the sentiments of these posts. But I feel that they are misguided. We (white folks) are not Trayvon. We will never in our lifetimes be Trayvon, except perhaps by some fluke (which then by definition is not the same, because what happened to Trayvon was not a fluke at all).

And even if that happens, our faces will be all over the media with teary reporters talking about what good students we were and how kind we were to our friends, families, and neighbors. They will talk about how we could’ve gone on to write a bestselling novel or start a business or develop a new vaccine, but our lives were tragically cut short by a Bad Person who will soon face the full force of justice.

Sometimes—often, really—it’s more useful to think about our differences than our similarities. This won’t play well to those who claim that “we are all human” and we must “overcome these artificial divides.” Yes, we are, and we must. But before we do so, we must consider the tremendous impact these divides, however artificial, have had on our lives and societies.

You can’t wish this shit away. The familiar refrain of We Are All Human and We Must Look Beyond Our Differences can’t undo Trayvon’s murder and his murderer’s acquittal, and it won’t make this tragedy stop repeating itself. In fact, I would even argue that the more we sing this refrain, the less likely the tragedies are to ever end, because this overplayed song always plays much louder than the uncomfortable but truer songs: the ones about how everyone “sees race,” cops and judges and jurors included, and how the Supreme Court has institutionalized racism into our criminal justice system and on and on.

Before we can do what it takes to make sure that there will never be any more Trayvons ever again, we have to stop singing this song.

We are not Trayvon because we’ve created a world in which some people are Trayvon and some are not. Wishing really really hard that we hadn’t done so will not undo it.

~~~

If you only read one (other) thing about Trayvon Martin and the Zimmerman verdict, make sure it’s this.

Self-Diagnosis and Its Discontents

There’s a certain scorn reserved for people who diagnose themselves with mental illnesses–people who, based on their own research or prior knowledge, decide that there’s a decent chance they have a diagnosable disorder, even if they haven’t (yet) seen a professional about it.

I understand why psychologists and psychiatrists might find them troublesome. Nobody likes the idea of someone getting worked up over the possibility that they have a mental illness when they really don’t. Professional mental healthcare workers feel that they know more about mental illness than the general population (and, with some exceptions, they do) and that it’s their “job” to serve as gatekeepers of mental healthcare. This includes deciding who is mentally ill and who is not.

Self-diagnosis also gets a bad rap from people who have been professionally diagnosed with a mental illness. They feel that people who self-diagnose are doing it for attention or because they think that diagnosis is trendy.

This actually bothers me much more than the arguments against self-diagnosis coming from professionals. Why?

Because the claim that people who self-diagnose are just “doing it for attention” or because they think it’s “cool” is the exact same claim frequently made about people who get diagnosed professionally.

To be clear, I’m not saying that people never label themselves as mentally ill for attention. Maybe some do. Maybe a significant proportion of people who self-diagnose don’t really have a mental illness at all. I’d have to see research to know, and from my searches so far I haven’t really found much research on the phenomenon of self-diagnosis. (But I’m taking note of this for my master’s thesis someday.)

However, there’s a difference between someone who’s feeling sad for a few days and refer to themselves as “depressed,” and someone who’s been struggling for weeks, months, or years, and who has read books and articles on the subject and studied the DSM definition of the illness. The former may not even count as “self-diagnosis,” but rather as using a clinical term colloquially–just like everyone who says “oh god this is so OCD of me” or “she’s totally schizo.” (This, by the way, is wrong; please don’t do it.)

(It’s also likely the case that some people self-diagnose because they have hypochondria. However, the problem is not that they are self-diagnosing. The problem is that they have untreated hypochondria. Maybe diagnosing themselves with something else will get them into treatment, where a perceptive psychologist will diagnose them with hypochondria and treat them for it.)

Even if some people who self-diagnose are wrong, I still think that we should refrain from judging people who self-diagnose and take their claims seriously. Here’s why.

1. It gets people into treatment.

I wish we had a system of mental healthcare–and a system of social norms–in which everyone got mental health checkups just as they get physical health checkups. For that, two main things would have to change–mental healthcare would have to become affordable and accessible for everyone, and the stigma of seeing mental health professionals (whether or not one has a mental illness) would have to disappear. (There are other necessary conditions for that, too–the distrust that many marginalized people understandably have for mental healthcare would have to be alleviated, and so on.)

For now, going to see a therapist or psychiatrist is difficult. It requires financial resources, lots of time and determination, and a certain amount of risk–what if your employer finds out? What if your friends and family find out (unless they know and support you)? What will people think?

Because the barriers to seeing a professional are often high, many people need a strong push to go see one. Having a strong suspicion that you have a diagnosable mental illness can provide that push for many people, because nobody wants to go through the hassle of finding a therapist that their insurance covers (or finding a sliding-scale one if they don’t have insurance), coming up with the money to pay the deductible, taking time off work to go to the appointment, dealing with the fear of talking to a total stranger about their feelings, and actually going through with the appointment, only to be told that there’s “nothing wrong” with them.

As much as I wish things were different, the reality right now is that relatively few people go to therapists or psychiatrists unless they believe that they have a mental illness. If self-diagnosing first gets them into treatment, then I don’t want to stigmatize self-diagnosis.

2. It helps them find resources whether or not they see a professional.

In the previous point, I explained that for many people, self-diagnosing can be a necessary first step to getting treatment from a professional. In addition, once people have diagnosed themselves, they are able to seek out their own resources–books, support groups, online forums, etc.–to help them manage their symptoms. This can be extremely helpful whether or not they’re planning on getting treatment professionally.

While psychiatric labels like “depression,” “generalized anxiety,” and “ADHD” have their drawbacks, they are often necessary for finding resources that help people understand what they’re going through and help themselves feel better. If I’m at a library looking for books that might help me, asking the librarian for “books about depression” or “books about ADHD” will be much more useful than asking them for “books about feeling like shit all the time and not wanting to do anything with friends” or “books about getting distracted whenever you start work and not really having the motivation to finish any of it and it has nothing to do with laziness by the way.” Same goes for a Google search.

It’s certainly fair to be worried that people looking on their own will find resources that are unhelpful or even dangerous. But I think this is less of a problem with self-diagnosis per se, and more of a problem with the lack of scientific literacy in our society, and the lack of emphasis on skepticism when evaluating therapeutic claims. For what it’s worth, going to see a mental health professional will not necessarily prevent you from encountering quackery and bullshit of all kinds. And in any case, the blame does not lie with the people who self-diagnose and then fall for pseudoscientific scams, but with the people who perpetrate the scams in the first place.

This point is especially important given that many people will not be able to access professional mental healthcare services for various reasons. Maybe they can’t afford it; maybe they work three jobs and don’t have time; maybe they can’t find a therapist who is willing to accept the fact that they are trans*, kinky, poly, etc. Maybe they are minors whose parents are unwilling to get them into treatment. Maybe they were abused by medical professionals and cannot go back into treatment without worsening their mental health.

There are all kinds of reasons people may be unable to go and get their diagnosis verified by a professional, and most of these are tied up in issues of privilege. If you have never had to worry that a doctor or psychologist will be prejudiced against you, then you have privilege.

3. It can help with symptom management whether you have the “real” disorder or not.

At one point when my depression was particularly bad I noticed that I had some symptoms that were very typical of borderline personality disorder. For instance, I had a huge fear that people would abandon me and I would bounce back and forth between glorifying and demonizing certain people. If someone made the slightest criticism of me or wasn’t available enough for me, I would decide that they hate me and don’t care if I live or die. I had wild mood swings. That sort of thing. It’s not that I thought I actually had BPD; rather, I noticed that I had some of its symptoms and wondered if perhaps certain techniques that help people with BPD might also help me.

Luckily, at this time I was still seeing a therapist. So in my next session, I decided to mention this observation that I had made, and the conversation went like this:

Me: I’ve noticed that I have some BPD-like symptoms.
Her: Oh, you don’t have BPD.
Me: Right, but I seem to have some of its symptoms–
Her: No, trust me, I’ve worked with people with BPD and you do NOT have BPD.

I suppose I could’ve persevered with this line of thinking, but instead I felt shut down and put in my place. I dropped the subject.

So determined was this therapist to make sure that I know which mental illness(es) I do and do not have that she missed out on what could’ve been a really useful discussion. What she could’ve done instead was ask, “What makes you say that?” and allow me to discuss the symptoms I’d noticed, whether or not they are indicative of BPD or anything else other than I am having severe problems relating to people and dealing with normal life circumstances.

The point is that sometimes it’s useful to talk about mental illness not in terms of diagnoses but in terms of symptoms. What triggers these symptoms? Which techniques help alleviate them?

So if a person looks up a mental disorder online and thinks, “Huh, this sounds a lot like me,” that realization can help them find ways to manage their symptoms whether or not those symptoms actually qualify as that mental disorder.

This is especially true because the diagnostic cut-offs for many mental illnesses are rather random. For instance, in order to have clinical depression, you must have been experiencing your symptoms for at least two weeks. What if it’s been a week and a half? In order to have anorexia nervosa, you must be at 85% or less of your expected body weight*. What if you haven’t reached that point yet? What if you don’t have the mood symptoms of depression, but you exhibit the cognitive distortions associated with it? Acknowledging that you may have one of these disorders, even if you don’t (yet) fit the full criteria, can help you find out how to manage the symptoms that you do have.

4. It helps them find solidarity with others who suffer from that mental illness.

I understand why some people with diagnosed mental illnesses feel contempt toward those who self-diagnose. But I don’t believe that sympathy and solidarity are finite resources. If someone is struggling enough that they’re looking up diagnostic criteria, they deserve support from others who have been down that path, even if their problems might not be “as bad” as the ones other people have and/or have not yet been validated by a professional.

Acknowledging that you may have depression (or any other mental illness) can help you find others who have experienced various shades of the same thing and feel like you’re not alone.

My take on self-diagnosis comes from a perspective of harm reduction. The idea is that strategies that help people feel better and prevent themselves from getting worse are something we should support, even if these strategies are not “correct” or “legitimate” and do not take place within the context of established, professional mental healthcare.

We should work to improve professional mental healthcare and increase access to it, especially for people in marginalized communities and populations. However, we should also acknowledge that sometimes people may need to help themselves outside of that framework. These people should not be getting the sort of condescension and eye-rolling they often get.

~~~
*The diagnostic criteria for eating disorders are expected to improve with the release of the new DSM-V, but I’m not sure yet whether or not the 85% body weight requirement will still be there. In any case, this is how it’s been so far.

“Consent Is Sexy” Is Useful But Also Kind Of Sketchy

I’m at the University of Chicago’s Sex Week, where I’ve seen a bunch of great talks, including one by Cliff Pervocracy! So I have sex on my mind (well, as usual).

I often write about very well-intentioned principles or campaigns that have blind spots and negative implications. Here’s another example.

“Consent is sexy” is one of those cliches one hears a lot in the course of working in sexual health promotion and assault prevention. There are some great things about this idea. For instance, it pushes back strongly against the idea that coercion and domination are hot. I’ll be writing about the eroticization of rape in romance novels soon, so you’ll see what I mean, and I won’t belabor that point now.

“Consent is sexy” also reaches even those people who don’t really care to think through larger issues like gender roles, violence, oppression, and how all of this affects your sex life. Tell them that asking for consent leads to better sex and they just might do it.

But there are also a lot of things that are sketchy or simply wrong about “consent is sexy.”

First of all, sometimes it isn’t. Sometimes the answer is “no,” and the person who withholds consent can’t always (nor should they) refuse in a sexy way. Sometimes you ask “Is this okay?” and they tell you that it’s not because last time they did that it was rape. Sometimes they say they’re not sure how they feel about it and need to talk it out with you. What does it mean for you to do this act with them? How will you help them make sure they don’t feel degraded by it? What steps will you take to make sure it’s safe?

And often these conversations won’t happen during or right before sex. Sometimes you’ll be on the phone or chatting online. Sometimes you’ll be cooking breakfast or putting on makeup. Sometimes, even though you’re talking about sex, actually doing it will be the furthest thing from your mind.

So repeating “consent is sexy” over and over promotes a false image of what negotiating consent is actually like and puts pressure on people to make these negotiations “sexy” even when they don’t feel like it. Yes, sometimes it really is like, “Can I do this?” “Oh yes please!” But sometimes it’s not and you shouldn’t be afraid to talk about consent just because it might not be “sexy.”

Encouraging people to think of consent as “sexy” also implies that you should ask for consent because it’s sexy. Yes, I realize that nobody who promotes this message actually thinks that, which is why I said “implies.” But nevertheless, the constant stream of “Always ask for consent! Consent is sexy!” coming from sexual health advocates (including myself) sometimes sends the message that it’s the sexiness of consent that makes it such a vital part of healthy sexuality. After all, when you tell people to do something and follow it up with a positive feature of that thing–i.e. “Wear condoms! They help prevent STIs and pregnancy!” or “Visit New York City! It’s huge and beautiful and has lots of museums and friendly progressive folks and delicious Russian food!”–you give the impression that these positive features are the reason why you should do this thing.

I’ll state the obvious: you shouldn’t get consent because it’s sexy. You should get consent because it’s the only way to be certain that you’re not assaulting someone, and not assaulting someone is the only way to be a minimally decent human being. If getting consent is also a huge turn-on, that’s great, but it’s just the icing on the wonderful cake that is not assaulting people.

The word “sexy” is a loaded word because, as much as we may try to reclaim it and redefine it to suit our own needs, it still has a very narrow traditional meaning. “Sexy” screams at you from a magazine cover. “Sexy” is the girl who’s asked for consent and always says yes. “Sexy” is being enthusiastic about everything you do in bed rather than occasionally choosing to do something you’re not that enthusiastic about because you’d like to give your partner that experience. “Sexy” is having an orgasm easily and every time. “Sexy” is constantly thinking of exciting and creative new positions and techniques to try rather than just sticking with the ones you and your partner love.

I want to divorce this view of “sexy” from sexuality in general. Sexuality doesn’t have to be “sexy” all the time. Neither does consent, which is an integral aspect of sexuality.

“Consent is sexy” is a great place to start. It’s the 101 level. But once we’ve shouted about that from the rooftops for a bit, it’s time to move on and remember that not every minute of negotiating and having sex has to be “sexy.”

Edit: After having finished and titled this post, I discovered that Ozy Frantz has already written something very similar and titled it something very similar. I’ve even read it. DERP. Not intentional! I’m retitling my post slightly so that it doesn’t look like blatant plagiarism. :)